Form Follows Function: What A Critical Doer Can Learn From Louis Sullivan And Frank Lloyd Wright

A Critical Doer attacks problems and creates opportunities from the inside out 

A Critical Doer generates motion from “why” more than “what”

 “Form follows function.” Architect Louis Sullivan made this dictum the driving tenet of modern architecture.  The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright took it a step further when he said that form and function should be a “spiritual union” to illustrate the relationship between the two.

It’s easy to see why “form follows function” is accepted as universal truth in architecture.  Suppose you designed a new building full of spacious condos, gorgeous amenities, situated with a breathtaking view…but your purpose was to manufacture furniture.  The beautiful structure would be functionally irrelevant.

You can also see this principle in play at a personal level.  Suppose you want to get in shape…but for what?  A power lifter gets in shape differently than a distance runner, and someone who simply wants to improve their health will also take a different approach.

Architects of buildings “get it” but unfortunately there are many cases of organizational architects that don’t “get it.”  For many different reasons, they will draw up an organizational structure that does not reflect the purpose of the organization.  If this happens, there is a high probability the organization will fail; at a minimum, the organization will underperform.

Bestselling author Simon Sinek’s Starting with Why outlines a simple “inside out” progression of thought from why, to how, to what that offers a good insight on organizational design.

Let’s say you’re starting a nonprofit organization to feed the homeless.  Your why, coming from leadership vision, could be a community of fully productive citizens.  Your how could be helping people who are down get back on their feet.  Your what, is feeding the homeless.

With that in mind, you could design an organization to meet that “why” through two main lines of effort…business development and customer service.  Business development could be working in the background on fundraising, accounting, recruitment, access, donations and purchasing.  Customer service would focus on distribution, volunteer management, customer communication, etc.  There are enough dependencies between the two divisions to foster a good feedback cycle that produces evidence of how well the organization is performing when evaluated against “why.”

Here are a few guiding principles you can use in designing your organization to ensure your activities directly support “why”…the reason you exist.

  1. Constant communication of “why.” Don’t worry, you can’t over communicate why and it must be known by every person in the organization.
  2. The more divisions, the more divided. One of the fastest ways to divide your organization into failure is to create an administrative unit for every single function.  Think through the major “muscle movements” and span of control (the amount of resources one boss can reasonably direct) and let that guide your design.  Additionally, more divisions leads to more overhead which reduces the resources available to do the organization’s mission.
  3. Strength through dependency. If you design an organization where the divisions don’t need each other, each division creates its own “why.”  The organization now becomes a confederation with some common interests but their own interests trump all.  Dependencies for success are a forcing function for teamwork and sharpens focus on the organization’s “why.”
  4. Evaluate and recalibrate. Conditions change, and today’s healthy organizational design may lead to tomorrow’s failure.  As a leader, you must ensure “why” commands loyalty rather than an organizational structure.

 Your challenge is to take a look at an organization where you’re a member…it may be at work or at home…and see if there is a breach in the relationship between form following function.  Take the opportunity to refocus on “why” and the optimal design of the organization will become self-evident.  It’s what a Critical doer would…do!

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Updated: April 27, 2015 — 9:14 am